Claire Cain Miller’s article on our failure to find value in work performed by women has been on my mind lately, even two years after it was originally published. Why is it that we fail to find women — and by extension, the work that they do — valuable? Just think about the rhetoric involved: in discussing breast cancer, we’re encouraged to “save the tatas.” That’s cute and all, but what about the women attached to those breasts? And consider discussions around sexual assault: we hear appeals from men who try to frame their perspective as uniquely feminist, because they are “fathers of daughters.” Men are asked to think of how they’d feel “if it was their sister.” What about thinking of women simply as people? As human beings? As individuals who have the right to safety and respect in and of themselves, regardless of if or how they are related to men? In the same way that a woman seems to only be valuable in the ways she is related to or benefits a man, work done by women is similarly undervalued.
The “pay gap” women experience is well-documented. As of 2017, women earn a median 81.8% of what men do. And we should be careful to acknowledge that many women experience that pay gap much more deeply than others: median earnings for black women was only 67.7%, and Hispanic women a mere 62.2% of what white men earn. And even though there has been increased awareness of this issue, progress towards equality has made only small strides at best.
Research has shown that there is a great deal more to the pay gap between women and men than women being paid less for equal roles and work. In fact, it has been shown that work and professions considered “feminine” are, in fact, valued less in our society.
“…there was substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance… [it’s] just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”
“Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.”
Similarly, doctors in the U.S. are among the highest paid professions, but in Russia, where it is considered “women’s work,” doctors and other medical professionals are among the lowest paid professions. While there is an overabundance of doctors in the workforce, I think it is clear that does not entirely account for the dismally low wages. The majority of doctors are women, so therefore the work must not be valuable.
“…even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”
As far as personal experience, I work at a heritage institution. I often do similar coding work as other information technology professionals. But you’d better believe that coding work done under the more “feminine” title of librarian gets a lot less pay — and regard — than a programmer or data engineer.
The patriarchal structure of our society has brought us to a staggering place: women’s work is not valued because women are seen to have little value. When laid bare this way, it is hard not to be shocked. So how can we change? It is a complex and multilayered issue, one that clearly cannot be solved in a day. Perceptions need to change. Privileges need to be recognized and acknowledged. And perhaps the more we are aware, the more we can push back against what has become the status quo.